Calder: The Conquest of Time – The Early Years, 1898–1940 by Jed Perl - review by Charles Darwent

Charles Darwent

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Calder: The Conquest of Time – The Early Years, 1898–1940


Yale University Press 687pp £35 order from our bookshop

Of the many descriptions of Alexander Calder in Jed Perl’s new biography of him, the most telling and unexpected is this: Calder was a ‘burly man with the soul of a nightingale’. The burliness comes as no surprise. Shut your eyes and think of Calder and you will very probably see him as he appears in Jean Painlevé’s 1955 film Le Grand Cirque Calder, plaid-shirted and growling in ostentatiously bad French. (If you haven’t seen Calder operating his toy circus, you should. You can find Painlevé’s film on YouTube.) Calder looks like an amiable lumberjack, or an oversized child: the circus, begun in 1927 when he was just short of thirty and living in Paris, could as easily have been a vieux garçon’s train set. No, it is the second part of the description, of Calder as a soulful nightingale, that pulls one up short – the more so on finding that the words were written by Joan Miró. 

Miró’s description suggests the need for a good biography of Calder. During his life, Calder was the victim of mistaken identity. To an extent he remains one forty years later. Despite thoughtful recent exhibitions of his work, such as those at Pace in London in 2013 and at the Tate in 2015, the amiable lumberjack and his art have somehow come to be confused with each other. Where Miró is witty, Calder is merely humorous; if the Spaniard’s work paints him as the master of uncanny opposition, the American’s shows him to be a tinkerer – a merry fellow, whose swaying mobiles could be hung over the cribs of Brobdingnagian infants.

This image of Calder as not quite serious set in early. He was certainly burly enough – it comes as no surprise to learn from Perl’s book that the sculptor and Ernest Hemingway were friends, or that Calder had actually, if briefly, worked as a lumberjack. And he was odd. The English artist Stanley William Hayter recalled his first glimpse of the young American, newly arrived in Paris, walking between the tramlines in a bright mustard suit, ‘like a stoutish baby’ with a ‘walrus moustache’. It is little surprise that Paris, to start with, did not take him seriously. When Calder staged a performance of his miniature circus for a group that included Le Corbusier, Léger and Mondrian, his audience sat silent throughout. Only Theo van Doesburg showed any interest. Later, when an enthusiastic Calder offered to motorise the movable panels of colour arranged around the walls of Mondrian’s studio, the Dutch artist, stunned and fastidious, turned him down with the words, ‘No, it is not necessary. My painting is already very fast.’

And yet these anecdotes have the too-easy feel of cartoons, anti-American squibs. What is usually left out of the Mondrian story is its ending – that Calder immediately got what the Dutchman was about, that he saw, and was excited by, the contrapposto power of Mondrian’s still art. The impulse to motorise the red, blue and yellow panels may have had its roots in the toy toolkits of Calder’s childhood, but it was also part of the project of modernism: among the artists who had experimented with and largely abandoned motion as a new medium were Naum Gabo, László Moholy-Nagy and Oskar Schlemmer. (It is interesting to think what Mondrian’s response to any of these might have been had they offered to set his panels moving.) And Calder’s love of workaday materials – wire, string, found bits and bobs – made him of a piece with Marcel Duchamp. It was left to the German avant-garde critic Adolf Behne to see that the apparent light-heartedness of Calder’s art did not preclude its being serious, and that the American’s role as ‘the first humorist of sculpture’ was balanced by something else – a rejection of ‘the alpha and omega of all sculpture since Thutmose in Egypt: mass, corporeality’. Not for nothing did Miró, a friend of fifty years, see the nightingale quality in Calder’s soul.

All this needs saying, and Perl’s new biography says it, and a great deal more. Rather too much more, in fact. The remit of Calder: The Conquest of Time is the first forty-two years of its subject’s life, from his birth as an eleven-pound butterball in Pennsylvania in 1898 to his establishment as a successful artist, with a studio in Connecticut and a gallery in New York, in 1940. Actually, though, it takes seventy pages for Calder to put in an appreciable appearance, as an eight-year-old in Pasadena in 1906. Much of what goes before is spent on his grandfather and father, both sculptors, and their respective and sprawling clans. It is nearly two hundred pages before Calder arrives in Paris and discovers the European avant garde, two hundred more before Duchamp, visiting his studio in 1931, suggests that he call his newly kinetic sculptures ‘mobiles’.

Perl, less known here than in America, has a name as a combative critic. His bugbears, aggressively attacked for twenty years in the pages of New Republic, include Frieze, controlling curators, the politicisation of art by right-thinking liberals and Jeff Koons (‘a vacuum’). He has a particular dislike of the arbiters of the so-called ‘canon’. In his attempts to right the wrongs he perceives around him, Perl occasionally behaves like a kneejerk contrarian, taking up the cause of second-rate painters such as Balthus and Leland Bell just for the sake of it. His breezy claim that the fact that certain artists collaborated with the Vichy regime tells us ‘nothing about whether [they were] producing great or indifferent work’ was only one such provocation. As Calder himself quipped of Frank Lloyd Wright – who swept into MoMA’s 1938 Bauhaus show, barked ‘Nonsense!’ and swept out again – ‘He is always frank, but he is not always right.’

For all of these reasons, one might have expected two things of a biography of Calder by Perl: a reappraisal of an artist who, while popular and successful, has been underrated as an intellect, and a good barney. By placing Calder at the heart of the avant-garde experiment, Perl delivers on the first, but at far too great a length. He spends the best part of a page agonising over the breadth of the stripes on Calder’s tweed, for example, and their precise degree of yellowness or brownness. The many, many pages on Calder’s forebears are an unnecessary ordeal. What is missing from the book is provocation. While Perl has never lacked for self-assurance as a critic, as a biographer he turns out to be oddly tentative. This book is shot through with insinuation: ‘We can’t be sure that…’, ‘Was Calder a mama’s boy?’, ‘Was Calder actually in love…?’, ‘Could it be that…? ‘Did Mondrian…?’, ‘Can we assume…?’ This hedging of bets allows Perl to have his cake and eat it, to suggest without being seen to state. An effect of this, though, is to make his narrative feel unsure. It is only in the last chapter of this overly long book, where Perl writes as a critic rather than as a biographer, that something of his pepperiness returns. And that is nearly six hundred pages in.

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